Heir to the Glimmering World

by Cynthia Ozick
ISBN: 0618470492

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A Review of: Heir to the Glimmering World
by Jana Prikryl

In Cynthia Ozick's latest novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, the narrator Rose Meadows endures Jane Eyre's childhood without getting to have any of Jane Eyre's fun. Maybe that's because Rose's predicament is meant to signify something about the 20th century rather than the 19th: Into her personal story barges the turmoil of Depression-era America, Nazi Germany, post-Revolutionary Russia, and Franco's Spain. It's always suspicious when such a large number of world events congeals in a single work of fiction (at the very least, it ties a bunch of one-ounce weights to the suspension of disbelief), but in this case it seems fair to swallow your skepticism: The story takes place in the 1930s; if things weren't this grim it wouldn't be realistic.
Perhaps to galvanize that realism and make us really feel the misery of that era, Ozick has piled personal calamities on top of her protagonist. This is what we learn in the first 25 pages: Rose's mother is long dead; her father is cruel and largely absent; they are penniless, which obliges Rose to be a shrewd cook and housekeeper by the time she's 11; at 17, she is forced to attend teachers' college (which she abhors) and to accept charity from Bertram, a relation-by-marriage (to whom she grows attached, just before he throws her out). So young, so early in the novel, and so many kicks in the pants.
Despite all this trauma, you are snake-charmed into reading more because of Ozick's pure skill at animating sequences of words. At school, Rose feels perpetually alienated from her carefree classmates: "I watched the laughter and the horseplay with a melancholy so ingrained that it crept downward into my hands: often my palms were damp." Years later, when Bertram sends Rose away, he does it to please his communist girlfriend Ninel (reader, spell it backwards). The night before Rose's departure, though, he plants a much-longed-for kiss on her lips, and the chapter closes with this wonderfully rueful line: "In this way I was expelled from Albany's obscure and diminutive radical pocket."
At this point, the novel has only just begun, but we are already in possession of a key theme: the dialectical conflicts between money and poverty, capitalism and communism. It's poverty (and a bit of gender-based desperation) that obliges Rose to accept her first job offer, to work in some obscure capacity for a family of German refugees. Two years earlier, the Mitwissers effected a harrowing (and rather capitalistic) escape from the Nazis in Berlin: They rented a black-tinted limousine to escape random Gestapo searches during the crucial week before their ship left port. For seven days, the family of seven had themselves chauffeured aimlessly round and round Berlin, with bathroom breaks taken anxiously in the lobbies of swanky hotels. This by-the-way tale is one of the finest honed miniature horrors of the novel. Not only does it work historically; it also helps explain why the Mitwisser clan is such a dark, self-enclosed unit, and why Rose, once again, finds herself ostracized in the very household she inhabits.
But this is where the reader's eyebrow finally arches in doubt. For the first few months of Rose's employment, the Mitwissers never deign to pay her or define her duties, whether as those of nanny or amanuensis. The father, Professor Mitwisser, was a famous scholar in Germany; the mother was a famous scientist who is now prone to nervous breakdowns. Mrs. Mitwisser is the first person in that family to actually speak of their dependence on an invisible benefactor, and Rose reflects, "It struck me that it was only the family madwoman who would mention money." Rose knows the family is in financial straits, yet she also knows they pay for everything except her wages. She hardly makes a peep about the matter. I don't want to get too baldly capitalist here, but even Jane Eyre would have insisted on remuneration.
The fact that Rose doesn't is just one symptom of her general dwindling as a character. At this point in the novel she recedes into the role of transparent witness, watching various melodramas unfold around her, and biding her time until the novel's last page, when she is finally released from her duties as a narrative device and allowed to fatten into three-dimensionality, to go seek her fortune in Manhattan. Still, Ozick is not prepared to let her go without a Big Idea lighting her path: You can hear a new wave of social history propelling Rose along even in her newfound independence: "I saw myself as the counterpart of that hungry aspirant, the Young Man from the Provinces-modernity had granted the chance of untethered motion to my own sex."
The burden of historical determinism in this novel is made heavier because Ozick adds another layer of quasi-history to the mix: The Mitwissers are financially prone to the whims of an eccentric millionaire named James, who turns out to be "the Bear Boy". Who is the Bear Boy, you might wonder? Rose described him early on, under the pretense of explaining a children's book that was in her father's possession when he died. Just think of the Bear Boy as Christopher Robin. Ozick deliberately modeled the one on the other, but her attempt to vault the fictional B.B. into the historical role of C.R. buckles from the strain of equating the two. Rose muses on the topic of the Bear Boy, casual as can be, for several pages: "Some people think the Bear Boy is the most famous boy in the world-famous the way, in those early years of movie cartoons, Mickey Mouse was famous, or, to choose a more elevated example, the metaphysical Alice." None of this makes up for the lameness of the moniker "the Bear Boy", and none of it invests him with the specific, idiosyncratic life of those real childhood heroes. For the rest of the novel, you read "the Bear Boy" and are forced to perform a mental calculus that conjures vague pictures of Winnie-the-Pooh. For fans of the latter, it's more than annoying.
Similarly, Professor Mitwisser's studies of an arcane Jewish sect called Karaism (which actually exists) are made to resemble intellectual passion, but you never get into the subject deeply enough to feel its heat. Rose is forever typing Mitwisser's sublime dictations: " Here is a man,' he said, a mind comprehending vastness, a luminary, a majesty, and history obscures him, buries him, suffocates him! Ejects him! Erases him from the future, suppresses him, names him the dissident, subversive, heterodox, transgressive-' Mitwisser's eyes flung out their electric blue." Admirable stuff, and thematically ironic in that Mitwisser could be describing himself, but there isn't really enough here to hook an idea on. Ozick forces us to take so much on oath that even the novel's historical events wind up feeling ersatz. Ninel dies in the Spanish Civil War? Well, maybe Ozick invented the war the better to plunge Bertram into despair.
Given how historical determinism propels the whole novel, I was surprised to find, after reading it, that James Wood wrote a loving New Yorker profile of Ozick in 1996. Wood has built his career on isolating the moral value that makes fiction thrilling-free will, paradoxically granted to characters by authors who exercise control by relinquishing it. Yet, to judge from Ozick's latest novel, she is more comfortable mapping history than imagining ways out of it. If Heir to the Glimmering World takes its inspiration from 19th century social novels, with their characters caught in the pincer-hold of history, then the book denies its characters a crucial weapon of 19th century heroes and heroines: The power to rise up, as individuals, and use their idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses to shape history. I suspect that Ozick's fascination with capital-in all its forms, from how it destroys childhood celebrities like "the Bear Boy" to how it's often the social agitators, like Ninel, who are cruelest to the people around them-distracted Ozick from giving Rose, at least, a crumb of free will. When Rose finally hopes for freedom, it's only because the rest of her generation is becoming emancipated. Even Jane Eyre, a hundred years earlier, did better than that.

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